When spoken-word star Shane Koyczan first heard SFU was going to devote a major summit to finding ways for the city’s residents to connect, it was as if suddenly he realized he was being heard.
For most of his career, the poet has striven to commune directly with people, and to encourage them to connect emotionally. You don’t have to look any further than his famously inspiring 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies poem, “We Are More”.
In his mind and in his powerful words, he’s been wondering why, especially here in this city, we avoid interacting. So when he received a call from SFU inviting him to kick off its inaugural Public Square community summit at the Orpheum—one called Alone Together: Connecting in the City, spurred by a recent Vancouver Foundation study that shows residents here feel isolated—he was eager to get involved.
“This is very much a part of what I do, so to be included in something like this, it’s very rewarding and assures me that the journey I’ve set upon is worth it. For a long time, I’ve been saying ‘What’s going on? Why are we like this?’ And then here it is, this thing that I noticed,” the poet marvels, speaking from his home in Penticton and sounding almost as vivid and emotionally nuanced in conversation as he does on-stage. “There was a point where I said, ‘Do people even care? Does it even matter?’ And now to have this event… All this time I spent pondering this wasn’t wasted; it does mean something.”
Looking back, the affable artist figures a large part of his interest in the subject of connecting stems from his isolation as a kid and being severely bullied. “It’s almost like a part of me started to overcompensate,” he suggests. “Physically, I’m not a very comfortable person—I realized I’m kind of this lumbering… man thing,” he says with a small laugh. “So I compensate where I can show an emotional side of myself; I’m comfortable with an emotional nudity that allows me to be more fragile to strangers.”
He also calls himself a “small-town kid”; he grew up in Yellowknife, and today he likes the cozy feel of his hometown of Penticton. But in between, he spent 13 years in Vancouver, and he noticed it had a particular sense of disconnect—especially when he rode the SkyTrain and saw people either putting on their headphones or hiding behind books. “I’ve travelled the world and it’s not just Vancouver—but it seems like there’s a greater urgency to not talk to each other in Vancouver.”
When he takes the stage at Alone Together, Koyczan will share it with speakers and performers like Vancouver rockers Bend Sinister, Toronto artist-activist Dave Meslin, and retired urban planner Larry Beasley. He’ll be performing some of his newer work, along with some special requests that have relevance to the symposium. (He wants to keep it all a surprise.)
Meanwhile, with a recent triumphant appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (where he earned five-star reviews) under his belt, Koyczan will continue his work, travelling the world in his ongoing quest to connect with people on a larger scale. “I see openness and honesty as, like, the best sort of armour,” he says. “Being fragile in front of someone is a stronger armour than being prickly. There’s something beautiful about being delicate, and everybody forgets about that. They throw up this armour around themselves so they can’t connect with people,” he says, and then adds of his performances: “This is me saying, ‘It’s okay; come closer, trust me. I’m going to take you to dark places but we’ll arrive somewhere together.’ ”
Interacting through arts and culture, he feels strongly, is the path to bringing urbanites out of their “armour” and their isolation. “If you’re not willing to take part in the human experience, you’re wasting your time on the planet,” he says. “Isn’t that why we’re alive?”
Shane Koyczan appears on Tuesday (September 18) at the Orpheum as part of SFU’s Alone Together: Connecting in the City opening night.